Health Effects of Silicon
Silicon is one of the least explored essential minerals that our bodies need to function properly. This element constitutes 28% of the mass of the earth’s crust, which makes it the second most abundant mineral on earth after oxygen. However, there is only one gram of silicon in the human body. Despite that dietary silicon is essential to health. But, do not confuse dietary silicon with silicone, a polymeric material that contains atoms of silicon within its molecular structure and is used to make breast implants. The major form of bioavailable silicon for humans is a water soluble ortho-silicic acid, an isomer of silicic acid. In the human body, silicon is found mainly in bones, cartilage, tendons, skin, hair and blood vessels.
Suggested Health Benefits of Silicon
Most experts agree that silicon is needed in the body to make strong bones and skeletal structure, connective tissues, blood vessels, hair, nails and skin. Other health benefits commonly attributed to silicon include immune system health, reduced metal accumulation in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, joint health and lowering the risk of atherosclerosis. Some experts also speculate that silicon could play a role in the treatment and prevention of skin disorders, hair loss, digestive problems, strains and sprains, and osteoporosis but research in these areas has been very limited so far. In fact, many of the biological roles of silicon in the body remain unknown.
Silicon and Alzheimer’s Disease
Research suggests that ortho-silicic acid, when added to beverages, reduces the uptake of aluminium in the digestive tract and promotes its renal excretion. For this reason, scientists believe that silicic acid could be possibly used to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Silicic acid naturally occurs in beer and, incidentally, beer has been associated with preventing Alzheimer’s disease for some time, but for another reason. Beer contains a compound known as xanthohumol that is present in hops, which has been shown to prevent brain damage. (Another good reason to drink beer more often.)
Silicon and Osteoporosis
Silicon has been linked to bone mineralization and collagen synthesis and thus made responsible for the strength of the bones and flexibility of the joints. Research has found that increased dietary intake of silicon enhances bone mineral density in young men and premenopausal women. Some scientists therefore suggest that silicon cold be used to prevent osteoporosis. However, no effect on bone mineralization has been observed in post-menopausal women, which may indicate that silicon only promotes healthy bone formation but does not help to prevent the bone breakdown.
Silicon and Joint Health
Earlier animal studies demonstrated that diet high in silicon may help increase the concentration of collagen in the cartilage and thus improve joint health.
Silicon and Skin, Hair and Nails
In several studies, silicon has been shown to have positive effect on skin texture and mechanical properties of the skin, the skin’s healing ability, hair tensile strength and hair flexibility, and structural integrity of nails. Silicon also appears to improve brittle nail syndrome.
Silicon and Atherosclerosis
Animal studies revealed that silicon may help prevent symptoms of atherosclerosis such as inflammation, oxidative stress, metabolic imbalance and vascular dysfunction in hamsters that were fed a high-fat diet. This confirms findings of earlier studies which suggested that silicon may play an important role in the prevention of atherosclerosis.
Dietary Recommendations and Silicon Deficiency
There are no official recommended dietary allowances or tolerable upper intake levels for silicon. Therefore, we do not know whether certain populations are more prone to silicon deficiency than others. Some experts believe that chronic deficiency in silicon may contribute to brittle nails, thin breaking hair, premature aging of the skin and poor bone development, mainly in the arms, legs and skull. Likewise, little is known about potential silicon toxicity except that the long-term use of dietary supplements containing silicon may result in developing kidney stones.
Dietary Sources of Silicon
Silicon naturally occurs in hard water and mineral water, beer and many foods. The best sources of silicon are high-fiber foods including whole grains (barley, oats, wheat, rice), vegetables (avocados, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, pumpkin), fruits (apples, oranges, strawberries), nuts (almonds, peanuts), green beans and onions. Men in some countries tend to consume twice as much silicon as women, which is attributable to beer drinking. Supplements containing silicon are mainly used for bone health. Silicon is also commonly used as a food additive (mostly as an anti-caking agent) in the form of silica (silicon dioxide). However, this form of silicon cannot be absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract.